If you would have visited the church I grew up in, one of the first things you would have noticed was the teenager asleep in the front row, bored and lifeless during the entire service — a service in which his dad preached. That teen was me.
I grew up in a strong Christian home, but in my teens I turned my back on God and wanted my parents to leave me alone. For several years, my parents thought they had lost me for good. But eventually God broke through my foolish heart. He used my parents’ response to my rebellion to rescue me from sin, and “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me” (1 Timothy 1:14).
There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in the greatest of prodigals. Therefore, parents should never lose hope. I am proof that no teenager is beyond the reach of God’s salvation.
Life in the Van
My dad and mom had hoped, as all parents do, that our family would be close-knit during my teenage years. They soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. Before their eyes, the boy who was once so sensitive to the things of God — the boy who showed an interest in the Bible and danced with his mother in church — spiraled into rebellion.
During that time, I defined God on my own terms. I thought of God in such a way that he became irrelevant: a god who left me alone and didn’t have strong opinions about the details of my life. I told my parents I wanted to have regrets. I made it my ambition to ruin times together as a family. In conversation with my parents, my goal was to upset my dad and to make my mom cry.
I withdrew from my parents, distancing myself emotionally and physically. Wherever my family went, whether it was family vacations, family reunions, or visiting friends, I stayed in the van by myself. They never left the car running, but I stayed in there for hours on end.
One summer my parents saved up and took the family on a vacation to visit some national parks. One place we went was a breathtaking outlook at Jenny Lake in Wyoming. It is a magnificent, clear blue lake with the awe-inspiring Grand Teton Mountains towering in the background and reflecting in full color off the lake. Truly amazing.
Or so I’ve been told. I’ve only seen a postcard because, in my stubbornness and folly, I was in the van.
Encounter the Heart of God
My desire in life was to be left alone. Thankfully, no one did. My parents didn’t leave me alone, and the relentless grace of God didn’t leave me alone. Even when I was in my most miserable condition, I could never question whether my parents loved me.
My parents sought counsel from others in the church on how to relate to me. They prayed for me often, because they knew that while there was nothing they could do that would change my heart, God is mighty to save. Rather than leave me to myself, they moved toward me. They set up regular times to meet with me and asked questions to draw me out. They attempted to enjoy my company, even as I was determined to make that difficult. They met my sin and self-absorption with mercy and kindness. They communicated their love for me often. They didn’t give up believing in the power of grace.
As days and weeks and months and years went by, nothing seemed to be making a difference. There was no fruit, and it didn’t seem to my parents that anything was remotely helpful. When I look back on that time, though, and see my parents trusting God, faithfully sowing, and loving me when I was at my worst, I see how I came to truly understand the love of God for me through the love they showed.
A Switch Was Thrown
There wasn’t anything new or different that my parents did that God used to rescue me. In August of 1997, we were on a family vacation in Florida, and my parents knew we would be doing a lot of driving as a family. So they prepared some discussion questions based on material we had read. I learned later that they prepared for that trip with 76 handwritten questions to select from as there was opportunity.
Miraculously, God used an ordinary conversation on that vacation to open my eyes to see my sin, the need to repent, and the urgency of trusting in Christ.
My dad later commented, “All of the sudden, there is this trip, and there is this change.” He said, “It seemed like a switch was thrown.” Well, that is exactly what had happened. A switch was thrown in my heart. God had acted and enabled me to understand who he is and the claim his truth has on my life. In the moment, I couldn’t have articulated what had happened. There were no tears, no confession of sin, no prayer that I prayed with my parents. But something had happened in my heart.
Don’t Give Up
God convicted me of sin, made Christ stunningly real to me, and gave me a desire to live for him. The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” shone into my heart and gave me “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And my life would never be the same.
The story of my life is one I love to tell because it celebrates the triumph of God’s grace. Parents, don’t give up. Keep praying for and loving the prodigal in your life. Remember that your Lord loves your children even more than you do. “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Christ “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and he continues to bring prodigals home. Because Christ reigns with power and love, we can be confident there are no hopeless cases.